It's like a penance, it occurs to me, these men dumping out crate upon crate of salmon carcass into the Columbia River of the Pacific Northwest, a move toward restoring it to health. I see a prayer in their actions too: Please, River, forgive us. Please, salmon, forgive us. I have happened upon a Nature program telling some of the story of what has happened to the Pacific wild salmon and the Columbia River basin over the last 150 years. I learn that human intrusion has upset the natural balance of that region to the extent that 13 species of salmon--the prized sockeye among them--are endangered, and several others are already extinct.
We've done it again. Dams, hatcheries: we thought them good ideas when we built them. But the harm they've caused and the subsequent attempts to reverse it have cost a lot and yielded very little. Hatcheries were designed to solve the problem of collapsing salmon populations caused by the interference of the dams, but they introduced their own problems, a dying river among them.
Collectively, we are apparently still learning the meaning of "ecosystem". Take out one
cell of the body of that system, and the otherwise unbroken wheel of the life cycle is breached. With the circle broken, the life cannot cycle; it must dead end. When we stomp out "pests" or parasites or predators in large numbers (or relocate them), for example, a brilliant balance is tipped, and an exquisite "machine" if you will grinds to a halt.
What is a "pest" anyway? And what is a pesticide? Why, a killer of pests, of course. But from the standpoint of the life cycle, the unbroken wheel, the "loop," there are no pests. From a wholistic standpoint, all parts are essential, vital to the healthy functioning of (in this case) an ecosystem. Just as with a house of cards: remove but one and the structure collapses. Witness the devastating decline of our wild salmon and their natural habitat.
The program ends on an encouraging note:
"If we give Nature a chance to recover these fish, it will happen... Although it's only a fraction of a percent of the historic runs in the tens of thousands, the magnitude of the improvement [between 2008 and 2010, with new measures having been taken to restore natural conditions] showed us that it's not too late for the salmon."
I watched Idaho Fish and Game men in trucks taking extraordinary measures to help
recover the salmon populations and the Basin, and it did my heart good. Just as it did my heart good to learn that in Australia, "dedicated under-
passes" have been built for--and are being used by!-- koalas and other wildlife whose habitats have been split apart by urban development and its resulting highways. That human beings are putting their minds and funds and energy to protecting these endangered cells of our One Body is a good sign to me.
But the jury's still out on the fate of the salmon of the Pacific Northwest: the program
does not close before leveling a warning:
"Six million years of evolution in these streams, 10,000 years of evolution since the last glacier: are we going to throw it all away in one generation and leave nothing for our children? This is the time."
Yes indeed: this is the time.